Is Television Dumbing Down Dad?

- By Eliza Wierzbinska, Intern -
Family is one of the most often revisited themes on television. In sitcoms and dramas, mother and father figures reflect society’s prevailing attitudes and expectations about parenting, gender and gender roles in the home. Past representations of motherhood on television upheld mothers as ‘naturally nurturing’ figures (LaRossa, 1988) able to give their children everything they need. Fathers, on the other hand, were assigned the roles of ‘breadwinner’ and ‘disciplinarian,’ typically incompetent and inept in the domestic realm (LaRossa, 1988). Two new sitcoms, “Mom” on CBS and “Dads” on Fox offer an opportunity to look at how much of this perception has changed in modern television’s representations of motherhood and fatherhood.

“Mom” stars Allison Janney as Bonnie, and Anna Farris as her daughter, Christy. Bonnie is a bit of a rule breaker who does not fit the archetype of the white, suburban, middle class homemaker. She is a former cocaine addict and alcoholic in recovery, trying to mend her relationship with her daughter. In dealing with real problems, like Bonnie’s addiction, the show’s characters go deeper than usual gendered stereotypes seen in portraits of mothers on television, but still manage to make you chuckle throughout the episodes. Traditional gender roles have been the norm for television families (Staricek, 2011), which is to say the mother role was limited to performing housework, meeting her children’s needs and keeping her husband happy (Staricek, 2011). “Mom” breaks these gender roles for Bonnie and Christy and in turn provides for a fresher viewing experience for the audience.   

The “Dads” pilot, on the other hand, attempts to humor the audience with stereotypes of fatherhood that are neither new nor insightful. The fathers are barely able to do anything with their children. The dads on the show repeat old themes: the archetypical incompetent father incapable of competently managing domestic duties or rearing his children. Jokes about men acting like boys are a common (read: tired) default for television comedies (e.g., the oblivious dad in “Everybody Loves Raymond” or the indolent dad in “Married with Children”).

Portraying father as inept in the home and with his children may have more repercussions besides boring television.  If shows like “Dads” continue to represent fathers as oblivious and generally incompetent, does it constantly normalize to viewers the notion of the ‘absent’ father? Male ineptitude represented on television seems to suggest that child care is not part of the male role. Young viewers, male or female, may get the message that men are not good at domestic duties and come to the conclusion that the best thing is for the dad to stay out of the domestic realm. Expectations for a modern day father have changed (Staricek, 2011) and the portrayal of the father figure as dumb, immature and irresponsible is equally inaccurate message and uninspired. 

A more contemporary portrait of a father is someone who is able to ‘nurture and provide’ (Marsiglio, Amato, Day, & Lamb, 2000). Fathers more than in the past are expected to be active, present parents. The modern dad, more than the previous generation of fathers, is more intimate, secure and closely involved in his children’s lives, from changing diapers to driving carpool and to cooking dinner. Television representations of fatherhood have yet to catch up. The question remains why is television dumbing down dad? 

LaRossa, Ralph. “Fatherhood and Social Change”. Family Relations (1998): 451-457.
Marsiglio, W., Amato, P., Day, R. D. and Lamb, M. E., “Scholarship on Fatherhood in the 1990s and Beyond”. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62: (2000) 1173–1191.

Staricek, Nicole. “Today’s ‘Modern’ Family: A Textual Analysis of Gender in the Domestic Sitcom”. (Masters of Communication and Journalism Thesis, Auburn University, 2011). 



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